Nova Southeastern University’s Professor Jose Lopez and his colleagues from the University of California Davis and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro propose a major revision in current space exploration philosophy and planetary protection policy, especially regarding microbes in space.
“Life as we know it cannot exist without beneficial microorganisms,” Professor Lopez said.
“They are here on our planet and help define symbiotic associations — the living together of multiple organisms to create a greater whole.”
“To survive on a barren — and as far as all voyages to date tell us — sterile planets, we will have to take beneficial microbes with us.”
“This will take time to prepare, discern and we are not advocating a rush to inoculate, but only after rigorous, systematic research on Earth.”
The team now asserts that this rigorous microbial research agenda needs to be implemented for any future successful colonization of Mars.
Moreover, microbes should probably supersede current ambitions to send people to Mars or other extraplanetary bodies in our Solar System, as they can condition or terraform places we may want to eventually colonize.
In the long run, the effort will save humanity money, can be life-sustaining and boost microbiological understanding.
However, to determine the most useful microbes for space requires a lot more research here on Earth.
The researchers encapsulate this idea into a potential research regime called Proactive Inoculation Plan (PIP), which encompasses the screening of potential hardy microbial candidates, toxic or lethal genes, and describing mechanisms for the most productive symbiosis.
“Life on Earth started with relatively simple microorganisms which have the capacity to adapt and evolve to extreme conditions, which defined Earth’s habitats in the ancient past,” Professor Lopez said.
“Cyanobacteria for example provided most of the oxygen we now breath more than two billion years ago.”
“To the find the best microbial candidates, we will have to confer with many microbiologists and carry out research here on our home planet to find the optimal microbial species.”
The team’s paper was published in the journal FEMS Microbiology Ecology.
Jose V. Lopez et al. 2019. Inevitable future: space colonization beyond Earth with microbes first. FEMS Microbiology Ecology 95 (10): fiz127; doi: 10.1093/femsec/fiz127